For Professor Shlomo Sand, all this  doesn’t really matter today. But as he said himself, he was waiting to receive his professor title and only then, he felt confident enough to share his new findings in public, and to publish three books that caused quite a storm in the academic world in Israel and outside, and in the public in general.

Last week, on the 16th of October I went to hear Professor Sand in Amsterdam. I was very happy to go there, I know his work since I was a student for political sciences. So who is Shlomo Sand? He is an Israeli professor of history in Tel Aviv University. He is an expert in the history of nationalism, film and French intellectualism. But what made him famous is his unusual view about the Jewish people and ‘holy land’ which I will explain later on. Sand wrote three controversial books: The Invention of the Jewish People (2008), The Invention of the Land of Israel (2012) and How I Ceased to Be a Jew (2013).

I would like briefly to explain Sand’s theory. It is difficult to elaborate on all of his work and theory in few words; nevertheless I want to present the main ideas of his work. Sand opened his lecture with stressing that his starting point of his work is very personal, an Israeli, born in a refugee camp in Austria to Polish Jewish survivals of the Holocaust who later on immigrated to the new born Israel. In his work, Sand is breaking very common myths about Israel and the Jewish people. He decided to write something different than he wrote so far in his carrier as university history professor, such as the three books mentioned above.

Sand, like many other Israelis who were educated in Israel, was thought to believe that the famous biblical events as the exodus of the Jewish people from ancient Egypt, or the kingdoms of David and Solomon are real historical episodes. And that ‘we’ the Israeli people are the direct offspring of these kingdoms. I can personally confirm that it is true. All of us, Israeli people are learning in school since we are 6 years old, the biblical stories as our history, the history of the Jewish people. Even it is a secular public school, everybody studies the bible in that way, with or without a religious approach.

Debat SandNaturally, Sand who is an history professor, was trying to find historical proves of those events, and he discovered that the exodus from Egypt is a myth and so are the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the famous exile of the Jewish people by the Romans in 70 BC. Sand was starting his research by searching for history books about this exile. Shockingly, he couldn’t find not even one history book, about one of the most famous events in the Jewish history.

He was starting to wonder, what really happened to the Jewish population?  And how come there are so many Jewish people around the world then? But the most important question that motivated him was what is a people? What do we all mean when we say the Jewish people? When was this term invented?

Sand realized that talking about the French people, Dutch people, Italian or German people is just not the same thing as Jewish people. The notions of people and nations are modern, from the 19 century. It is quite obvious, when we say the ‘Dutch people’ we refer to a group of people who are more or less speak the same language, eat the same food, and share a mutual culture.

Can we say the same thing about the Jewish people? Do Jewish people from Russia, Argentina and Iran for example, can speak the same language? Do they eat the same food? And do they listen to the same music? How can we then use this term Jewish people? This is not a nationality this is a religious group. Sand claims that from the historian and logical point of view it is incorrect to use this term, the ‘Jewish people’.

All of these, according to Professor Sand, are relevant to the current political events and discussions in Israel. He stresses that there is a problem with the definition of Israel as the ‘state of the Jewish people’, and the ongoing attempts of the Israelis governments that the Arab world and the Palestinians will recognize the Jewish people as an historical fact.

Sand is asking, how can Israel be the ‘state of the Jewish people’, what about 25% of the Israeli population who are not Jewish? In a democracy, belongs the state above all to its citizens. How can Israel be the state of the Jewish people when not all of its citizens are Jews? Why can’t it be the state of the Israeli people? Sand is asking us, if we would agree to live in a state where 75% of its citizens are the privileged ones? Did you know for example that in Israel Jewish people are allowed to marry only Jewish people? Did you know that in Israel there is no option for civil marriage at all?

According to Sand, the problem with this definition started in 1947. Ben Gurion and his colleagues didn’t know how to define the secular Jewish people, and therefore they let the religious Jewish leaders, to take a significant part in the establishment of the state of Israel, its rules, policies and character.

Another central issue which Sand refers to is ‘Zionism’, he wrote his second book The Invention of the Land of Israel, in order to explain that Judaism is not Zionism. In short, he explained in his lecture that the idea to settle down in Palestine is against the Jewish beliefs. In Judaism, the land belongs to god, and not to the people.

It is true that the myth of the ‘Holy Land’ is a central religious myth in the Jewish religion, but not the idea of a ‘Homeland’. According to the Jewish traditions, the Jewish people are not allowed to live in the Holy Land, until the Messiah will return and bring back to life all the dead. The idea of returning to the Holy Land was developed by Evangelical Christians, according to Sand.

He also claims that the Zionism was born in Europe in a nationalist atmosphere, and he sees it as a colonialist movement and not a liberate one. Therefore he claims that the state of Israel is a result of occupation and colonization.

Professor Shlomo Sand defines himself as a democrat, he says that he is not anti- Zionist, and not a Zionist, he is post Zionist. Sand accepts the Israeli state. He claims that we cannot change the past, and destroying Israel will only lead to new tragedies. But he believes that any Israeli should be educated about the Israeli acts and colonial past. He defines himself as a Israeli, but above all he ended his lecture by saying that we all need to fight the politics of identities, each of us can have many different identities. He believes in universalism, we are all ‘citizens of the world’.

The lecture was very interesting, and at some points even emotional. Sand has unusual views about many issues, and you could see how it provoked the crowd. If I agree with him or not, doesn’t matter so much. I believe that it is always very interesting to hear completely different views and opinions than those we use to hear and read all the time. I respect Professor Shlomo Sand for his work, since I know how much courage you need in the Israeli Jewish climate to express radical opinions.

Bovenstaande foto’s zijn gemaakt door Anja Meulenbelt.


Ronie Barel

verhuisde van Israël naar Nederland, activist, blogger

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